By ProgBlog, Jun 11 2018 01:43PM

The resurgence of prog in the 90s was in no small part down to two seminal Swedish bands, Änglagård and Anekdoten. Änglagård’s Hybris (1992) was on my wish list for a couple of years before I managed to get hold of a reissued CD in 2014 for a sensible price from a stall at the Prog Résiste festival in Soignies, when up until that point the CD was selling for in excess of £30 on Amazon, but I first bought Anekdoten’s Vemod (1993) as a download in 2010 having read somewhere that the album sounded like King Crimson would have done had they not ‘ceased to exist’ after Red, due to their use of Mellotron; the album title, which roughly translates to ‘melancholy’, is very fitting. Wheel would have fitted very nicely on Red, especially as it includes cornet played by guest musician Pär Ekström.

I managed to see Änglagård on their first ever UK performance at the Resonance Festival later in 2014, something of a coup for the organisers of the event, and was more than impressed, subsequently being given Epilog (1995) and 2014’s Prog på Svenska - Live in Japan as presents. My wife traditionally asks if there’s any music she can get me on her annual New York trip, so on the occasion a month after buying the download, I asked her to look out for a physical copy of Vemod. Unable to locate a copy in a record store-depleted Manhattan, she phoned me from the States to tell me the bad news but that she had seen Anekdoten‘s 2009 2CD compilation Chapters and asked would I like that instead? I said yes. I then added Nucleus (1995) to my wish list and that arrived as a Christmas present in 2011. I’m attracted to the density and darkness of the music, and fully agree with the imagined post-Red King Crimson theory, so when Massimo Gasperini, the owner of Black Widow Records in Genoa contacted me to say he’d signed up Anekdoten to headline his Prog On evening at the FIM Fiera della Musica in Milan, it proved difficult to resist.

My experience of the FIM Fiera was in 2014, one of three times it was held in Genoa, where the line-up of bands for the prog stage over three days was really stellar, indicating the importance of the city for Italian prog. In 2016 and 2017 the Fiera was held in Erba (near Como) due to redevelopment of Genoa’s exhibition site and landed in Milan, at the Piazza città di Lombardia (the largest covered square in Europe) this year, with Prog On and other more formal presentations held in the adjacent Auditorium Testori.

This being a family trip, I’d identified a couple of other nearby cities to visit, to tick off more medieval squares and interesting churches, but the day of our arrival was dedicated to Milan. We wandered off towards the FIM venue via the Porta Nuova development, just to see what was around, immediately coming across the Black Widow Records stand where Massimo pointed out the one drawback with the piazza – June sunlight streaming in through the glass canopy and no shade. He then gave me a preview of the Auditorium Testori where ex-PFM guitarist Franco Mussida was giving a lecture to local schoolchildren, Cos'è davvero la Musica? (What really is music?); education in all aspects of music was a major part of the theme this year and Mussida, born in Milan in 1947, founded the CPM Music Institute in 1984, an organisation that offers 400 different programmes in music from certified instrumental courses to journalism to studio techniques.

It’s impossible to visit Black Widow Records, wherever it pops up, and not buy anything. I couldn’t say no to an LP I’d been interested in since I’d seen it had been re-issued by BTF earlier this year: a vinyl copy of Concerto delle Mente, the only release by Pholas Dactylus from 1973. I also bought re-issued vinyl copies of Museo Rosenbach’s Zarathustra (1973) and the pre-Goblin Cherry Five (1975) by Cherry Five and picked up the just-released Broken Coriolanus by Hollowscene (formerly Banaau) who were on the Prog On bill.

The day of the gig was mostly spent in Pavia, a short train journey away from Milan though I popped into Libraccio, the book and record store next to our hotel to buy Maxophone’s La Fabbrica delle Nuvole from 2017 and a Record Store Day picture disc of Tormato by Yes. We had lunch in Pavia’s Piazza della Vittoria looking out at the Broletto, the 13th Century town hall, then wandered off in search of Matrix Music only to find it had recently moved, to within 50m of where we’d had lunch, right by the cathedral. They were still unpacking and stacking when we visited and, because it’s getting ever more difficult to find progressivo Italiano that I don’t already own, I only bought a copy of King Crimson’s Live in Vienna CD from earlier this year.

Back in Milan, I set out to the FIM Fiera after a bite to eat and headed for the Black Widow stall, correctly believing that I might be able to find a copy of Vemod on vinyl but also buying the recently-released Rings of Earthly... Live CD by Ancient Veil. I couldn’t find anywhere to buy the album on-line but the band is on the Black Widow label and Black Widow were promoters of the two gigs at Genoa’s La Claque where the performances were recorded; my applause features throughout this release because I was present at both of those concerts.

While hanging around Black Widow I was introduced to another Genovese band, Fungus Family, whose music sits somewhere between the prog and psyche camps and relies on improvisation then, just as we were chatting en route to the beer tent, I bumped into Mauro Serpe and Giorgio Boleto, respectively the vocalist/flautist and bassist from Panther & C. Deep in conversation with Fungus Family about their forthcoming album and an unannounced change in running order meant that I missed some of Hollowscene’s set but what I heard was impressive – some nice Tony Banks-like synth runs and some moments of complexity akin to National Health. Prowlers, hailing from nearby Bergamo, have had a stop-start career and have been releasing music since 1994. Their Prog On performance featured songs from last year’s Navigli Riflessi but, apart from their last song which had sections in 7/4, they didn’t really conform to prog and the performance lacked dynamism. This was disappointing when you consider that in the past they recorded versions of Camel’s First Light and ELP’s The Sage for tribute albums. The contrast with La Fabbrica dell’Assoluto, on next, couldn’t have been greater. Plying their brand of heavy, high energy prog tinged with psychedelia and utilising a vast array of keyboard patches, the passion associated with RPI was forcefully clear; apart from drummer Michele Ricciardi they even dressed up in boiler suits to perform, a humorous reference to the band name. Witnessing them play live made me think of Museo Rosenbach, something I’d not really detected while listening to the record 1984: L’Ultimo uomo d’Europa. I spoke to the band at the end of the evening to congratulate them on an excellent set and, like all the other members of Italy’s prog community I’ve met, they were really easy-going and a pleasure to chat to.

Anekdoten have recently expanded to a five piece with the addition of British guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, best known for his work with Australian band The Church, but who was a guest on Anekdoten’s 2015 album Until All the Ghosts are Gone, and his playing adds even more depth to the sound. Communicating largely in English, the audience was reminded that 2018 was the 25th anniversary of Vemod so we were treated to not just a good proportion of the album, but Anna Sofi Dahlberg also played cello, something they’d not used live for some time. Though there’s a progression from foreboding, brooding dark prog to almost Radiohead-like post-rock through the albums, with each subsequent release involving a subtle change, I still prefer Vemod to the others when many commentators see Nucleus as their definitive release as it includes more mature writing than its predecessor, so I was very happy with the set list. The Rickenbacker bass, seemingly something of a staple in Scandinavian bands, provided by Jan Erik Liljeström along with the drumming of Peter Nordins are equally as important as Nicklas Barker’s angular guitar lines played over Dahlberg’s Mellotron (which was under-mixed for the first couple of songs) in defining the band’s sound. I personally prefer Liljeström’s singing to Barker’s because it complements the plaintive lyrics, much like John Wetton on Fallen Angel. Willson-Piper’s guitar provided extra density (if that’s possible) but he also helped out on percussion duties when his guitar was not required, and generally served as a source of energy propelling the ensemble onwards. My favourite moments were The Old Man and the Sea and Karelia but it was an all-round excellent performance; a major triumph for Massimo Gasperini (who was thanked by the band) and well worth the trip to Milan.

I was also very pleasantly surprised to see prog-fixer Marina Montobbio who had made the trip across from Genoa. Slipping easily between Italian, French and English she was involved in highlighting Plongée au coeur du rock progressif italien by Louis de Ny, a French book about Italian prog, and trying to persuade me to attend the 2 Days of Prog + 1 Festival in Veruno in September.

Fortunately it was only a short walk back to the hotel so I managed to get a decent night’s sleep despite an early start the next day: a trip to Bologna. This was mainly for the architecture because the record stores were all closed, and to see if it was worth a longer visit (it is.) Our flight home on Monday was late in the evening, the last flight out of Malpensa which meant we had time to explore some more. Monza was about the right distance away so we spent a full afternoon there. Though quite pleasant, I wouldn’t have recommended anyone making a special trip there if we hadn’t visited Carillon Dischi. A fifteen minute walk away from the centre under humid June skies, Carillon is another of the brilliant record shops that you find in small Italian cities; walls lined with classic rock and prog posters, plenty of vinyl and CDs including some rarities, a good range of memorabilia, plus a friendly, helpful and knowledgeable owner, Massimo. Browsing was restricted by train times, otherwise I’d have listened to some first US tour live King Crimson, I bought Un Biglietto del Tram by Storm Six (1975), something I’ve been after for a few months and an In the Court of the Crimson King T-shirt. I’d return to Milan any time and Monza really isn't out of the way...

By ProgBlog, Oct 12 2014 06:04PM

Sometimes prog themes turn up in unusual places...

Many years ago I didn’t appreciate the Zoology classes drawing animal skeletons and stuffed or pickled specimens and I wasn’t keen on spending a two hour Geology practical lesson drawing rugosa, an extinct order of coral that were abundant in Middle Ordovician to Late Permian seas. I had wanted to do Biophysics at York but disappointing A-level results meant that I ended up doing Botany and Zoology, with Geology as a first year option (that I somehow managed to drag on into my final year) at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.

Though I would probably make a different choice of course and career if I could have my time over again, the landscape around Barrow extending up into the Lake District but also including a decent amount of coastline, instilled a love of the natural world and the natural sciences. Having been told by my headmaster at the age of 11 that I didn’t read enough, I embarked on a fifteen year literary binge that took in classics (Austin, Bronte, Dickens, Hardy); modern classics (Hesse, Kafka, Peake); fantasy (CS Lewis, Tolkien); SF (I distinctly remember the yellow jackets on hardbacks by Ursula Le Guin, published by Gollancz that I would borrow from the town library); and a burgeoning genre aimed at children, from Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners to Alan Garner’s Weirdstone books, a trilogy recently completed by the excellent Boneland (2012). Landscape and literature became important influences; the geology of Low Furness was moderately complex and was responsible for the industrial landscape superimposed over the natural. In my mind, I equated Tolkien’s The Shire to the contours of the former haematite workings around Furness, perpetually verdant by virtue of the prevailing moisture-laden westerly breezes from over the Irish Sea. Local ruins Furness Abbey, Piel Castle and Gleaston Castle imposed their history on the scenery but I was equally interested in landmarks that added to the mythical setting: Birkrigg Stone Circle. My interest in the cosmological was partly inspired by this environment; the artificial light from the town was effectively cut off by the drumlins that surrounded Furness Abbey and clear nights were ideal for stargazing. On more than one occasion a small group of us would access the playground of St Paul’s School at night, itself surrounded by tall trees that eliminated any extraneous sodium glow from the street lights, and lie there, staring up at comet showers. I link this behaviour with my love of progressive rock; the exploration of my environment, the thirst for the written word and the possibilities linked to space travel all fit in with grand prog themes.

That my school years were important in forming who I’ve become has only relatively recently become apparent. It was around the time when my son Daryl was completing his studies that I realised that my youth exploring Furness and the Botany, Zoology and Geology classes all fitted in with my understanding of the universe. I think that my undergraduate courses were badly taught and that’s why I didn’t really appreciate comparative biology.

This knowledge may have lain dormant but there was also a continuing accumulation of information as I attempted to show him things I’d learned, tried to answer his questions and also listened to what interested him.

The unusual place to discover a prog theme, a Rock Progressivo Italiano theme in fact, was on the beach at Lancing in West Sussex. At low tide one weekend, the family were taking some mild exercise on the beach and came across rocks perforated by even-sized holes. It’s hard to believe that this effect was not the result of some human derived mechanical activity, simply because of the regularity of the holes, but I recalled some ancient zoology and knew that the holes were produced by burrowing marine animals. I was reminded of this episode as I travelled home from work last Friday when I was playing Concerto delle Menti (Concerto of the Mind), the only album by Pholas Dactylus, a band from around Bergamo, released in 1973. The group was named after the marine mollusc Pholas dactylus which is found around the north Atlantic and Mediterranean shores and was once a revered source of food. This shellfish has a couple of interesting properties; it is luminescent (a property recorded by Pliny that probably accounts for its esteem) and it is also capable of boring into rock; the chalk of West Sussex can’t have presented too much of a problem because the creature is capable of boring into gneiss, a form of high grade metamorphic rock.

The album was based on an apocalyptic poem by their vocalist Paolo Carelli who narrates the story by spoken word, rather than singing and the lyrics laid out in the inner sleeve are preceded by an enigmatic sentence attributed to Paolo Marcello: “A tall column made of bricks... ...each brick a word... ...the meaning of which you can understand just by looking at the base or on top of it...”

The storyline borrows imagery from a variety of biblical sources, most notably Revelations, something that had previously been attempted by Aphrodite’s Child and Genesis, but this comes across as more frightening and psychotic and includes a very abrupt ending. The spoken passages are punctuated by extended musical interludes that vary between jazz, jazz rock, pastoral breaks and psychedelia, representing the build-up and release of musical tension. Carelli’s words and voice fit really well though some online reviewers find the narration irritating; personally, I like the poetic flow. The opening section sets the scene “You are going to take a tramway. In a while you’ll be on an old, battered tramway carriage, looking like you after a black, empty, paranoiac day...” which hints at possible inspiration through stimulants and certainly suggests that the tram journey is a bad trip. The album is really one piece, split into two parts by the restrictions imposed by the original vinyl format and unlike many RPI releases, which barely include over 30 minutes of music, this is a very lengthy production with part 1 lasting over 29 minutes and part 2 almost 24 minutes. When I first listened to it, I knew that I would need to listen to it again without distractions to really appreciate the startling originality and subtle nuances of the work. Despite a well-received live following the album had poor sales and critics were at best indifferent to the work. I think this unique piece of work ranks as one of the best hidden gems of the original RPI scene. Sadly, the group broke up following the album’s release.

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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

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